August 2, 2021
From Vegan Foundry
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Eel sauce is commonly used to prepare broiled freshwater eel, also referred to by the Japanese as unagi, and it can also be used to flavor saltwater eel, which is called anago in Japanese. 

Is eel sauce vegan? Fortunately, eel sauce is suitable for vegans. It is made from soy sauce, mirin, sweet Japanese rice wine, and sugar. It’s called “eel” sauce because it’s often used to glaze unagi, which is the Japanese word for freshwater eel. 

In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about eel sauce. 

What is Eel Sauce?

eel sauce
openfoodfacts-contributors, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Open Food Facts

Also referred to as Unagi, eel sauce is a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine.

It’s often used as kabayaki – a technique where the fish is split down the back (or belly), and sliced into square fillets, skewered, and dipped in a sweet soy sauce (that is basically the eel sauce). 

Eel sauce is typically made with the following ingredients:

  • soy sauce
  • sake
  • mirin (Japanese wine rice)
  • and white sugar.

Contrary to what you may think, eel sauce does not contain any eel, as its name is simply derived from the fact that the sauce is used in eel (and other fish-based) dishes. 

Is Eel Sauce Vegan?

Despite the name, eel sauce is generally suitable for vegans. 

Commercialized eel sauces usually contain more than four ingredients, but they’re also vegan-friendly.

For example, the eel sauce sold by Otafuku contains the following ingredients:

  • water
  • sugar
  • dextrose
  • soy sauce
  • soy protein
  • mirin
  • modified corn starch
  • salt
  • caramel coloring
  • date juice
  • white vinegar
  • and ginger puree. 

These are all derived from a plant-based source, so they’re vegan-friendly.

However, some vegans have an issue with refined sugar, as some of it may be processed with animal ingredients, particularly if the sugar is sourced from North American sugar refineries. 

White Sugar Isn’t Always Considered Vegan

Cane sugar, alongside beet sugar, is one of the most common types of sugar, and it’s typically the one you will find in store-bought products, including sauces. 

Unfortunately, some sugar refineries in North America process cane sugar with bone char, a charcoal-like powder that is obtained from carbonized animal bones. 

The sugar derived from beets is ALWAYS vegan, but the one derived from sugarcane is commonly processed with bone char Hence, some vegans are hesitant to consume products that contain it. 

According to PETA, the cattle bones come from countries such as Afghanistan, Argentina, India, and Pakistan, which are sold to traders in Egypt, Scotland, and Brazil who then resell them to sugar suppliers in the United States to make bone char.

Let me also emphasize that not all cane sugar is processed with bone char, in fact, many suppliers are adopting plant-based alternatives such as granular carbon or ion-exchange resins.

Still, it’s often difficult to trace which type of sugar is being used, since a lot of companies use a mixed pool of suppliers, and naturally, some vegans have a real problem with this. 

Is the Caramel Coloring Vegan? 

Caramel color is a common food coloring and flavoring made by heating carbohydrates (like sugar), so you could say that it’s technically vegan, even though it might also depend on the carbohydrate source.

For instance, one out of several carbohydrates can be used, including:

  • fructose
  • glucose
  • white sugar (sucrose)
  • malt syrup
  • molasses
  • starch hydrolysates

These are all plant-based sources, but as I’ve mentioned, there’s a chance that white sugar may be processed with bone char, which would make the caramel color not vegan. 

However, only a small portion of caramel color is made using cane sugar, and only a part of that sugar is processed with bone char, so it’s not common for caramel color to be non-vegan. 

What Does Eel Sauce Taste Like?

Eel sauce provides you with a multitude of flavors when you taste it, but it’s primarily sweet and salty. 

The saltiness comes from the soy sauce, while the sweetness is derived from the sugar and mirin, and this combination creates a distinctive flavor that closely resembles barbecue sauce

The sauce itself is thick, smooth, and vicious, but it can be thicker or more gelatinous than standard eel sauces depending on the ingredients used. 

Homemade eel sauce recipes are thinner, but store-bought eel sauces are as thick as mayonnaise.

Breaking Down Commercial Eel Sauce Brands

There are a few popular brands of eel sauce that you can order online, and the good news is that none of them contain animal ingredients, so they’re technically suitable for vegans. 

Otafuku Gluten-Free Eel Sauce

otafuku eel sauce

Otafuku’s eel sauce contains the following ingredients:

  • Water
  • Sugar
  • Dextrose
  • Gluten-Free Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, and Salt)
  • Hydrolyzed Soy Protein
  • Salted Mirin (Water, Dextrose, Rice, Corn Syrup and Salt)
  • Modified Corn Starch
  • Salt
  • Caramel Coloring
  • Concentrated Date Juice
  • White Distilled Vinegar
  • and Ginger Puree.

Kikkoman Unagi Sauce

kikkoman eel sauce

Kikkoman’s unagi sauce contains the following ingredients:

  • Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce (Water, Wheat, Soybeans, Salt
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Sugar
  • Corn Syrup
  • Water
  • Salt
  • Modified Corn Starch
  • Monosodium Glutamate
  • Vinegar
  • Caramel Color
  • Citric Acid
  • Disodium Inosinate
  • Disodium Guanylate
  • Xanthan Gum
  • Potassium Sorbate
  • and Sodium Benzoate.

Nippon Shokken Eel Sauce

nippon shokken eel sauce

Nippon Shokken’s eel sauce contains the following ingredients:

  • Sugar
  • Soy Sauce (Water, Wheat, Soybeans, Salt)
  • Water
  • Salted Sake (Salted Rice Wine)
  • Modified Food Starch
  • Distilled Vinegar
  • Soy Sauce Powder (Wheat, Soybeans, Salt)
  • Caramel Color
  • Yeast Extract
  • Disodium 5′-Inosinate and Disodium 5 Guanylate
  • and Xanthan Gum.

Suzukatsu Eel Sauce

Suzukatsu eel sauce

Suzukatsu eel sauce contains the following ingredients:

  • Soy Sauce (Soybeans, Wheat, Salt)
  • Water
  • Ethyl Alcohol
  • Glucose Syrup (Corn Starch, Potato Starch, Sweet Potato Starch)
  • Sugar
  • Fermented Seasoning (Liquid Glucose, Sweet Potato Starch)
  • Caramel Color
  • Monosodium Glutamate
  • and Disodium 5 Ribonucleotide.

Other Vegan Alternatives to Eel Sauce

If you can’t find any eel sauce, there are other alternatives that you can, but not many of them are vegan-friendly, hence why I’ve found a few that may be in your interest. 

Teriyaki Sauce

yoshida's teriyaki sauce

Teriyaki sauce is traditionally made with soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar, so it bears some resemblance to eel sauce in terms of texture and flavor. 

Most commercially available teriyaki sauces are suitable for vegans, but some brands might use non-vegan ingredients such as honey. For example, the Takumi teriyaki sauce sold by Kikkoman contains honey.

If you want a vegan teriyaki sauce, Mr. Yoshida’s is a rather popular one. 

Make Your Own Vegan Eel Sauce

Another option is to make your very own vegan eel sauce, which, to be honest, doesn’t require any skill, so you only need to have the ingredients. 

This recipe by The Cooks Cook, requires only five ingredients, including mirin, soy sauce, minced garlic, sugar, and sriracha sauce. You need to mix them and boil them on medium heat until you obtain a slightly thick texture. 

Summary

Fortunately, eel sauce is suitable for vegans. It’s made from vegan ingredients such as mirin, soy sauce, sweet Japanese rice wine, and sugar. 

Sugar is the only questionable ingredient because it can have been processed with bone char, however, that is very hard to tell considering most companies use a mixed pool of sugar suppliers. 


Eel Sauce FAQs

Is Eel Sauce Gluten-Free?

Unfortunately, eel sauce is not gluten-free because one of the ingredients it contains is soy sauce, which is typically made with wheat, a gluten-containing grain. 

Is Eel Sauce Sweet?

Eel sauce contains ingredients such as sweet Japanese rice wine and sugar, so there’s definitely some sweetness, however, it’s also salty because of ingredients like soy sauce and mirin. 

Is Eel Sauce Halal?

Eel sauce is not halal because it contains sweet Japanese wine rice, which contains alcohol. 

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Source: Veganfoundry.com